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Times, studio face suit over promotion

Federal officials say they intend to sue over a news rack movie gimmick that led to bomb scares.

February 01, 2007|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Before Tom Cruise's "Mission: Impossible III" exploded last May across movie screens, its promotional campaign bombed on Los Angeles newsstands.

That's the view of federal officials who say they intend to sue the Los Angeles Times and Paramount Pictures Corp. over the April 28 placement in news racks of digital devices that played the familiar "Mission: Impossible" theme song when the racks' doors were opened.

Several newspaper buyers thought the music players were bombs and reported them to law enforcement. The Los Angeles County sheriff's arson squad blew up one Times news rack near the intersection of Sand Canyon and Soledad Canyon roads in Santa Clarita as a precaution.

In West Los Angeles, federal police at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center called the sheriff's bomb squad after a newspaper buyer spied the 6-inch-long, 2 1/2 -inch-wide red plastic box and its wires. Hospital administrators ordered the building at 11301 Wilshire Blvd. evacuated.

By that time, sheriff's investigators were aware that the devices were part of the movie promotion campaign. But the evacuation lasted about 90 minutes, according to federal officials.

"The VA sustained damages as a result of the evacuation," said Linda A. Kontos, assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles. "Our preliminary estimate of the VA's loss is $92,855.77."

In letters sent last week to The Times and Paramount Pictures, Kontos said her office intends to recommend that the government sue the newspaper and studio. She said her office was prepared "to provide you with the opportunity to resolve the allegations" without litigation.

Representatives for The Times and Paramount Pictures declined comment Wednesday.

Word of the planned lawsuit came as a cable TV network's use of blinking electronic devices to promote a cartoon show prompted bomb scares Wednesday in Boston, shutting down bridges, highways and part of the Charles River.

Turner Broadcasting apologized for causing the stir, noting that similar wire-equipped devices have been in place several weeks in Los Angeles and nine other cities to promote "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" on the Cartoon Network.

But Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said a stiff penalty would be pursued against those responsible for the blinking devices.

Kontos declined to discuss the "Mission Impossible" incident. But in her letters, she accused the newspaper and film studio of acting "carelessly in executing the promotional campaign by planting a device that could be mistaken for a bomb in a United States government building post-9/11."

She referred to an April 29 Times story about the news rack bomb scares in which newspaper executives described how 4,500 randomly selected coin machines in Los Angeles and Ventura counties were used for the first-ever "singing news rack" promotion.

After receiving reports of the bomb calls, Times security manager Mike LaPerruque notified law enforcement agencies around Los Angeles that the musical devices were not dangerous.

"With the wires leading to the micro-switch on the news rack doors, I can easily see how someone might have misconstrued it as an improvised explosive device," said LaPerruque, a retired Los Angeles sheriff's sergeant.

Said Kontos: "The companies' imprudence was particularly egregious because the device was placed in a VA hospital, a building in which various medical procedures are regularly performed and care for war veterans -- many of whom suffer from psychological disorders -- is provided."

She informed the newspaper and the studio that all documentation and correspondence pertaining to the news rack promotion is to be considered federal evidence.

bob.pool@latimes.com

Times wire services contributed to this report.

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